Land of Marvels

by Barry Unsworth

Reviewed by Annis

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth The land of marvels is Mesopotamia, now Iraq, home to many great empires over the centuries. It’s also home to vast reserves of oil, a commodity suddenly in great demand in 1914, as the oppressive shadow of war looms inevitably nearer.

This means nothing to British archaeologist John Somerville, striving to emulate his hero Henry Layard, the man who rediscovered Nineveh, fabled city of the Assyrian Empire. After three disappointing years, it appears that his hopes of a major find are about to be realised.

Somerville’s hopes are of no consequence to the movers and shakers of the world. Forget the past: the way ahead, it seems, lies in oil. Germans, Britons and Americans make secret deals, scrambling to set up complex consortiums in order to extract maximum future profit.

While Somerville digs obsessively, his outpost at Tell Erdek takes on the aspect of a farcical Edwardian house-party, with many of the guests not quite what they seem. Swedish missionaries, devious geologists searching for oil, and predatory secret agents mingle as they await a chance to outwit each other. Tension builds steadily.

Land of Marvels is a subtle, multi-layered novel, full of rich irony; a deceptively simple story which, like a good coffee, needs time to percolate before its full flavour can be appreciated. Its moral is that history is doomed to repeat itself and that transience is the very nature of power. It’s no coincidence that it is set during the rise of the great world-wide multi-national empires based on oil consumption and was written as their time in the sun fast runs out. Unsworth chose these prescient words from Kipling’s hymn to the British Empire as an epigraph:

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

(2009, 304 pages)

More about Land of Marvels from Powell's Books

Other novels about archaeologists and oil exploration:

The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd (2007), about a nineteenth century German archaeologist obsessed with uncovering the ruins of Troy.
More info

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif (1984), about the effects American oil explorers have on an unspecified Middle Eastern country beginning in the 1930s. More info

Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1927), about the cut-throat competition during the early days of oil exploration in the U.S.; a contemporary novel at the time it was written; this is the novel on which the movie There Will Be Blood was based. More info

Nonfiction about archaeology and oil exploration:

Nineveh and Its Remains by Austen Henry Layard (1849). More info

The Oil Hunters: Exploration and Espionage in the Middle East, 1880-1939 by Roger Howard (2008). More info

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin (1991), More info


Oil in Iraq: the Byzantine Beginnings by Dr Ferruh Demirmen at the Global Policy Forum website.

While I was reading Land of Marvels, Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem “Ozymandias” kept coming to mind:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

It seems the perfect metaphor for the ephemeral nature of political power. -- Annis

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